Throughout this winter, the main focus for Twins fans has been to see what the team would do to improve its pitching staff. After signing a trio of relievers, bringing in several starting pitchers, and even adding a bit to its offense, it’s a non-move that might loom large in 2019. Joe Mauer gets all the hype because of his enormous contract expiring at the end of the season, but another player that is set to hit free agency after this season is Brian Dozier, who is wrapping up an excellent four-year, $20 million contract extension that was signed prior to the 2015 season.
Back in January, Sid Hartman of the Star Tribune reported that the Twins hadn’t approached Dozier about a contract extension. He admitted that he was a little surprised, but now it appears that Dozier has accepted that he will be hitting free agency at the end of the year, according to John Bonnes of Twins Daily.
To many Twins fans, this would be a shocking development. Since debuting as a no-bat shortstop in 2012, he quickly reinvented himself as a slugger along with shifting over to man the other side of second base. He has now become a patient, powerful table-setter atop the lineup and can be considered as one of the top 10 position players in the American League. Losing Dozier would seem like a monumental loss to an organization that is looking to remain in playoff contention for years to come.
There are several options to consider for Dozier and the Twins over the next year or so.
I have no idea how the Twins would approach this. I mean, Derek Falvey and Thad Levine certainly know how they would tackle Dozier, but I don’t know what they would do. You see, if this was still a couple years ago, it would be clear that Dozier would be in line for a contract around five years and probably $15 million per year minimum. However, this offseason has been very different and teams would probably be a little more wary of paying a second baseman significant money when he’d be spending the majority of his first season as a 32-year old. There likely would be a team out there still willing to hand Dozier a five-year, $75 million that would run through his age-37 season, but I doubt the Twins would do that. I could see a 4/$60 offer from the Twins and if Dozier chose to move elsewhere, Falvey/Levine would just shrug and reallocate the $15 million per year towards other needs.
Fill the hole in-house
The second baseman of the future is probably already on the active roster. Jorge Polanco, the current starting shortstop, is probably miscast at the position and was already under consideration for moving to second base even while Dozier was firmly entrenched there. Though he markedly improved his defensive prowess from 2016 to 2017, Polanco still rated as below-average according to UZR/150 (-5.4) and a little below average in DRS (-1). Polanco’s calling card is his bat anyway, so providing adequate defense while chipping in some league average offense at worst would be an acceptable replacement for Dozier. It wouldn’t make up the 5+ WAR Dozier has accumulated over each of the past two seasons, but it could generate 2 WAR and the difference in salary could be used to make up the rest of the missing 3 WAR.
Shifting Polanco over would create a hole at shortstop, but hopefully Nick Gordon would be able to take over at the position. If not him, the Twins could then look for some stopgaps until Royce Lewis would be ready a few years down the road, assuming that he would be able to stick at the position himself.
Sign a different free agent second baseman
A.k.a. The Cuddyer/Willingham Switcheroo. Following the 2011 season, Michael Cuddyer was facing free agency himself. The Twins could have re-signed him, but instead opted for a three-year, $21 million contract with a similar corner outfielder in Josh Willingham. Meanwhile, Cuddyer also received three years from the Colorado Rockies, but at $31.5 million. Cuddyer amassed 4.2 WAR over his deal with the Rockies while Willingham notched 4.6 WAR with the Twins and Royals, so overall the Twins made a good decision despite parting with a fan favorite.
In Dozier’s case, the Twins do have some options available, though none would be on the same level as him. If he’s still performing at a decent level, Ian Kinsler could be an option on a short-term contract, though it’s important to note that he’ll be 37 years old for the 2019 season. He did have a significant offensive drop-off last year, but his BABIP also dropped 70 points from 2016 and yet he was still worth 2.4 WAR.
There’s our buddy Logan Forsythe, who was traded to the Dodgers from Tampa Bay after the Twins were unable to ship Dozier to Los Angeles. His batting average cratered in 2017 but he combated it by nearly doubling his career walk rate. Add in that he’s only a couple months older than Dozier while hoping that he’d return to his 2015-2016 output and you get probably the best Cuddyer/Willingham parallel available. Other options include similar power hitter Marwin Gonzalez, the high-average D.J. LeMahieu, old friend and noted speedster Eduardo Nunez, and other top second baseman Daniel Murphy if you want to dream big.
Considering these options, I think the first two are most likely to happen. Re-signing Dozier would be an easy call for most Twins fans as the only comparable second baseman available would be Daniel Murphy. While other options would be out there that could be cheaper, I think if Dozier moved to another team, the Twins would just opt to slide Jorge Polanco over to second. It would be an unpopular move to let Dozier walk, but I’d like to point out the St. Louis Cardinals with Albert Pujols as an example. After being one of the best hitters on the planet during his tenure in Missouri, he surprisingly moved on to the Los Angeles Angels after accepting a 10-year, $240 million contract. In spite of losing Pujols, the Cardinals continued to be a force in the NL Central because they were able to take what would have been their Pujols money and spent it on other needs. (Having that Cardinals devil magic where they kept discovering good young pitchers helped as well.) Likewise, losing out on Dozier might actually benefit the Twins in other ways as they’d use that money to shore up the pitching staff even more. Call it the Joe Mauer Paradox, considering so many people have complained that his contract have held the Twins back.